» Arrange a Lecture with James!

The Tide Turns Against Pastured Cows

» July 20th, 2014

Reality can be a bitch. Especially when you’re committed to propaganda. There’s no more common form of agrarian propagandizing than the insistence that pastured cows can save the earth. If that assessment sounds hyperbolic, check in with Allan Savory, who says that pastured cows can save the earth.

While the media, which knows precious little about the dark side of grassfed cattle, is generally happy to reiterate the self-serving and unverified claims of the “grass farmers,” every now and then a conflict of interest emerges to force the adoring media to cough up some truth about the ecological realities on the happy farm.

In this case, the inconvenient conflict came when pastured Vermont dairy cows pooping in pristine Lake Champlain pitted native grass farmers against clean water lovers. Suddenly, with enraged enviros at each other’s throats, the truth emerged from all the shouting: all those cows supposedly primed to save the earth were turning the lake into a cesspool. Find the story here.

The fact that Grist put this story out makes the news even more interesting. Grist’s vision of a happy planet seems to be one with farm animals frolicking across endlessly verdant pastures. It has been one of the loudest cheerleaders for the pastured-based revolution. One would more likely expect blood from a stone than an anti-grassfed story from Grist‘s mill. But there it is.

But what encourages me the most about this kind of story making the rounds—and maybe I’m engaging in my own form of fantasy here—is that the inescapably messy logistics of raising animals on pasture, and the pregnant consequences therein, will inevitably present themselves so blatantly that the media, and the general public, will no longer be able to ignore a reality that we have spent so long convincing ourselves to be otherwise.

At some point reality has no choice but to bite back, right?


Chipotle Goes Telepathic

» July 17th, 2014


Chipotle’s recent marketing stunt is so bold—so weirdly bold—I almost want to respect the depth of their gall. Although the company has been under fire for claiming that it serves “food with integrity” when in fact it serves loads of factory farmed meat, it has reacted to the negative publicity by promoting Niman Ranch’s pig guy and Chipotle supplier, Paul Willis, as a man whose understanding of porcine welfare comes from “communicating with them telepathically.”

No joke here.

Or is it a joke? I honestly don’t know. Wayne Hsiung, of Direct Action Everywhere—the organization that has led a brilliant series of protests against Chipotle—wrote the following earlier in the week: “You know a company has gone off the rails when it starts talking about telepathy with its victims. But I suppose when your entire business model is founded on a fraud, there’s not much else you can do.” Or could it be that the company is owning its fraudulence, internalizing its own lies, throwing residual caution to the wind, and saying “what the f***”? Let’s have some fun!” Lord knows their CEOs, who earned $25 million a piece last year, are laughing to the bank.

Joke or no joke, there’s something deeply insulting in the telepathy comment. It’s in the worst possible taste to claim empathy for animals that you purposely kill in order to make burritos. Does Paul Willis commune with the pigs when they are being shunted into the slaughter chute? I doubt it. Hell, even home slaughterers have the decency to do their handiwork under the guise of ersatz gravitas.

I’ve spoken to Willis in the past and he does not strike me as the kind of person to say such a thing. Did Chipotle put these words in his mouth? Who knows? Anyway, if there’s any good news in this stunt it’s that its absurdity suggests desperation. Chipotle is high on its own fumes. But the party will come to an end.

The Vegan Identity

» July 14th, 2014

After years of this kind of writing, the kind of writing I do here, I’m starting to see my name preceded by “vegan author.” Naturally. I identify as a vegan and thus am happy to embrace the qualification. That said, I don’t really put it out there myself. When people ask for a bio, I send them a description that fails to note that I’m a vegan. I’m wondering what’s up with this hesitancy.

I suppose part of it has to do with the fact that, technically speaking, I’m not a vegan. I ride in vehicles with leather seats when I could opt out. I drive a car and have run over squirrels and birds and snakes and not really cared too much about it. I’m certain I’d have no qualms eating insects and am even more certain that I already have, although inadvertently, eaten insects—just this morning, in fact, on a gorgeous ten-mile run down some winding streets in Maine (several gnats in my craw). Insofar as veganism is living in a way “that does not exploit animals,” according to the Vegan Society, I fail on more accounts than I care to mention. Moreover—key point to note—I could change my actions to reduce that exploitation: but I don’t. Too damn inconvenient.

Another reason that I’m ambivalent about shouting my vegan status from the moutaintops is that I’ve noticed over the years how, for those who aggressively identify as vegan, their veganism is primarily about the depth of their personal loyalty (and the inadequacy of others’) rather than on reducing animal suffering. By giving the habit we hope to prevail a Name, by tattooing it on our arms and celebrating as the numbers joining the club grow, and touting that Name above all else, we forget that social change does not happen when everyone joins in and gets stamped with a V. There’s something possibly cultish-smelling here that, however right it might be, grates against my sense of radical individualism, not to mention that this “us and them” way to see the world seems misguided and alienating to a lot of people.

Here’s something I think about a lot: before I became vegan—or, stopped eating animal products (I recall being impressed with a person) a really charismatic person—asking that his pizza come without cheese or meat. He did this without hesitation in front of a dozen hipster meat eaters. When I asked him why, he said animals were treated terribly to bring food to the plate and he wanted to minimize his role in that suffering. He never said he was a vegan and he never proselytized. At that point in my life, if he had done either, I would have thought “extreme” and ordered the jambon. Instead, he quietly and unknowingly pushed me in the direction of where I am now—a vegan in name, albeit a hesitant one rather comfortable with ambiguity and uncomfortable with a label.

The Elephants In The Room

» July 12th, 2014


My apologies for the long absence. The site experienced ongoing technical problems while my web man was on vacation. But the good news is that we all got a rest. That said, matters are in order and I’m back to work.

Over the break I became intrigued by the current outrage against ivory. Just the other day, Ricky Gervais, the English comedic actor, called on the public to “turn in” their ivory products as an act of public absolution. It’s curious, but all of sudden the media is all about elephants. Will ivory trinkets become targets of public attack such as fur coats once were? Why are we currently confronting the elephants in the room?

As usual, I’ve no idea. But in and of itself, the public/media outcry against ivory is a praiseworthy response to the gross atrocities committed against elephants. Interestingly, though, nothing of the sort is happening with respect to, say, the tens of millions of cattle we slaughter every year. This kind of inconsistency is common when it comes to the way humans treat animals. And it cuts both ways. I recall commenters on this site advocating the death of elephant poachers. But would they advocate the death of slaughterhouse workers? Either way, this paradox bears some consideration.

One obvious reason for the disparity—aside from the fact that we eat one product and not the other—is that elephants are going extinct whereas cattle, whose genetics are controlled by humans, proliferate at whatever rate we want them to proliferate. In essence, elephants are wild creatures who matter collectively whereas cattle are factory products who do not. The terms of their reproduction have illogically determined the terms of their extermination. How that happened is a historical/cultural question that somebody should explore.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a collective focus on a species, of course. But the current “save the elephant” gambit rests on a false—or at least conflicted—sense of what’s considered “natural.” That is to say, what bothers environmentalists isn’t the death of individual elephants for their tusks. It’s the fact that their death is denuding the landscape of the elephant’s presence, a diminution that’s perceived to be out of sync with what nature intended—whatever that may be. But who ever said scarcity, even anthropogenic-determined scarcity, was unnatural?

It’s more that scarcity can be unjust. But even if this kind of human-driven ecological change is unjust, the same kind of ecological logic would have to be applied to cattle. Cattle may not be going extinct, but the resources used to ensure their proliferation most certainly are in grave danger of depletion: arable land and water most notably. If conservationists and environmentalists are truly committed to the ecological logic of scarcity, then consistency would require them to wring their hands just as earnestly about the consumption of beef as the consumption of ivory. But don’t hold your breath on that one.

What’s lost in the failure to do so, however, is an opportunity to incorporate animal sentience into an increasingly cynical environmental lexicon.

PS: Speaking of which, if you’d like to send me your critical thoughts about the documentary Cowspiracy, please email them to eatingplantsmcwilliams@gmail.com. I’m hoping to do a post that incorporates readers’ thoughts on the film.


A Remarkable Admission

» June 26th, 2014

The following excerpt is from a much longer NYRB exchange with John Searle, a UC-Berkeley professor of philosophy and one of the smartest thinkers alive. Emphasis is added. -jm

Coming back to the question of rights, since every right requires a corresponding obligation, does it follow from your view that animals don’t have rights, since they have no obligations?

Searle: Most rights have to do with specific institutions. As a professor in Berkeley I have certain rights, and certain obligations. But the idea of universal rights—that you have certain rights just in virtue of being a human being—is a fantastic idea. And I think, Why not extend the idea of universal rights to conscious animals? Just in virtue of being a conscious animal, you have certain rights. The fact that animals cannot undertake obligations does not imply that they cannot have rights against us who do have obligations. Babies have rights even before they are able to undertake obligations.

Now I have to make a confession. I try not to think about animal rights because I fear I’d have to become a vegetarian if I worked it out consistently. But I think there is a very good case to be made for saying that if you grant the validity of universal human rights, then it looks like it would be some kind of special pleading if you said there’s no such thing as universal animal rights. I think there are animal rights.

Why does that mean they have rights?

Searle: For every right there’s an obligation. We’re under an obligation to treat animals as we arrogantly say, “humanely.” And I think that’s right. I think we are under an obligation to treat animals humanely. The sort of obligation is the sort that typically goes with rights. Animals have a right against us to be treated humanely. Now whether or not this gives us a right to slaughter animals for the sake of eating them, well, I’ve been eating them for so long that I’ve come to take it for granted. But I’m not sure that I could justify it if I was forced to. I once argued this with Bernard Williams. Bernard thought that it was absolutely preposterous for me to think that a consideration of animal rights would forbid carnivorous eating habits. I’m not so sure if Bernard was right about it.

NB: Thanks to Dave Wasser for the tip. For my attempt to work out the slaughter question consistently, see this.

Grassfed Beef Destroys Florida Pine Forest

» June 25th, 2014

The more I read the rhetoric of grassfed beef peddlers the more I’m convinced that these guys are worse than global warming denialists. They go on and on about the theoretical ecological benefits of fattening cows on grass but fail to offer concrete examples of this endeavor’s systematic success.

They fail to discuss in any depth the impact of methane output, water consumption, overgrazing, land usage, and the ecological costs of slaughter and processing. They avoid the question of demand—how do you feed hundreds of millions of consumers this way? They never talk about what must be done to keep the grass growing (fertilizer) or the land/cattle ration in balance (calves shunted to the veal industry). They fail to discuss what kind of grasses they use (often fescue, which is non-native and harmful for cows) or how much alfalfa they import from drought-stricken California to get their beasts to slaughter weight when the grass dries up.

They simply show us pretty pictures of happy cows on green pastures, say a few words about welfare and sustainability, bash the factory farms, and charge a premium. Too often, ever hopeful that we can have our beef and eat it too, we pay it.

Look at what’s happening in north Florida right now, though, and you’ll begin to see that the dangers linked to the grassfed beef revival are real. The Gainesville Sun reports that billionaire Frank Stronach is planning to spend $60 million to clear-cut pine forests, convert them to pasture, stock them with cattle, and pump in 13 million gallons of water a day to bring the system to life. This move is supported by the American Grassfed Association, which, because it is a trade organization no different than the American Beef Council, is perfectly happy to mouth the conventional wisdom that grassfed beef restores ecosystems and improves soil health. Well, last I checked, native pine forests do that pretty well, too.

What you are seeing in Stronach’s bid to turn the Florida forest into a pasture of profit is merely a taste of what’s to come if the foodie frenzy for grassfed beef continues to rise. Sure, there will always be some friendly hippy farmer at the local market telling you that he does it right. And he might. But as demand spikes for this supposedly virtuous alternative to industrial beef, your local good guy is going to be swamped by the models established by fat cats who have no problem dropping 60 million to have a hobby farm, steal our water, and send animals to slaughter for food that clogs our arteries.

Like climate change deniers, grassfed beef advocates have started to believe their own bullshit. If north Floridians don’t deliver Stronach a dose of scientific reality, there’ll be a lot more of that to spread around soon enough.



Grow, Pick, Cook, Eat

» June 21st, 2014

Paul Greenberg’s piece on the global seafood trade in the Times underscores vividly the reality captured in the article’s headline: why are we importing our own fish? Although Greenberg never gets around to really answering his own question (the piece simply insists should localize and participate in local seafood–novel!), the answer is easy: we import our own seafood because it’s cheaper to do so. Boom.

Critics of our out-of-control food system don’t get this. They jump at any opportunity to grab a juicy headline* with some bizarre geographical distortion of global trade—such as why we export seafood and then buy it back—in an effort to urge consumers fight the powers that be by pitching their local food tents. What these utopians** fail to realize is that the bizarre manifestations that they so earnestly (and rightly) lambast are the result of the simplest economic logic—a logic that everyone other than the one percenters tends to follow. Again, it’s cheaper. And that’s bad news for locavores, who will have to pay more for local shrimp. Or oysters. Or salmon.

The good news here is that the food system’s global boomerang effect is easily fixed: stop producing food that requires processing. Processing. When you hear that term you think about all that corporate junk food that Mark Bittman and all the food purists lament as the downfall of modern culture. But it’s more than that. Or less. Processed food is basically food that has to be altered before it’s sold. And food that has to be altered before it’s sold is food that enters the churning matrix of the global food trade, a Smithian crucible wherein it’s radically less expensive to have subalterns shuck, smoke, and can your oysters than to pay a federally mandated minimum wage for U.S workers to do the deed. As far as I’m concerned, that’s much worse than a locally-sourced syrupy soda.

Once again, food reformers favor the predilections of their own precious palates—must have shrimp, must have oysters, must have lox on my bagel— over the simple solution that stares them in the face: eat plants. How often do we need to say it? Eat Plants. Plants grown for people to eat generally have the great benefit of not needing to be sent to one part of the world to be manipulated by pennies-per-hour employees before being sent back to “America” to be massively consumed and then lamented in the pages of the Times. When you grow plants for people to eat you box them up and put them on a plane, train, or automobile. People grow and pick it; people cook and eat it. Nobody needs to peel it or smoke it or filet or slaughter it or de-vein it into edibility. The Times’ agriculture writers would only publish good news.

When we demand food that only needs to be grown, and not processed, we’ll not only put an end to the kind of articles that Greenberg (and I) write but, in favoring plants over animals, we’ll radically improve the environment, our health, and the welfare of critters. It’s that god damn*** simple.


*To be fair, this writer grabbed his own juicy headline last March doing the same sort of stunt.

**Yes, I know, calling for a global plant based diet is, well, a bit utopian, but work with me on this one. . .

***The Pitchfork usually eschews profanity, but I’m in a mood.

Are All Major Environmental Organizations Cowards?

» June 19th, 2014

Why is it that institutions with the power to initiate genuine beneficial change diminish their own effectiveness? I’ve railed in the past against mainstream environmental groups for refusing to promote veganic agriculture as a critical component of ecological amelioration. The evidence is simply overwhelming and undeniable: removing animals from agriculture would almost totally resolve the defining environmental (not to mention ethical) problems of global food production.

In the face of that evidence, though, leading environmental groups peddle the snake oil of untested or ridiculously utopian “solutions”—such as rotational grazing and urban animal agriculture—and insist that we can have our meat and eat it too. It’s a terrible shame, almost as if the cure for a fatal disease were sitting on an upper shelf but we decided it was too much effort to get off our ass and reach for it.

And it’s not as if these organizations aren’t willing to pursue extreme measures to advance their agendas. Bill McKibben’s 350.org has focussed like an attack dog on the XL Pipeline. Forget that abolishing this pipeline would ensure that oil and gas would move across the nation through less safe means [see this], the point here is that 350.org has boldly chosen to use the transcontinental pipeline as a symbol of the organization’s desire to end the consumption of fossil fuels altogether and replace them with alternative sources of energy. Doesn’t that strike you as more radical than pursuing a meatless agenda? Once again, there’s something about meat, and meat alone, that prevents making any suggestion that, for all its problems, we give it up. (Oh, right, it tastes good).

What’s particularly distressing about this cowardice, this craven refusal to call for the kind of change that demands sacrifice (yes, I know, veganism is not a sacrifice, but most people think of eschewing meat in that way) is the fact that even organizations explicitly committed to animals and the environment refuse to insist that veganism is the answer to our agricultural ills. In fact, with HSUS leading the charge, they support the small and “humane” alternatives as acceptable stepping stones to a stable alternative they refuse to explicitly define, much less place on a billboard: a plant-based diet.

To provide a more concrete sense of this cowardice, note what a representative from a notable organization concerned with animal welfare wrote in response to a request that the organization do an undercover investigation of a so-called “humane” farm:

If we expose “higher welfare” farms as being cruel too, then the majority of people who would have otherwise reduced their consumption or chosen higher welfare standards think it is useless to even try and stop eating factory farmed animal products. So, instead of moving people closer to the goal of veganism, it would have the effect of moving people further away. (I think it’s similar to citizens who feel politically alienated and powerless. Sometimes these individuals believe their vote doesn’t count and so don’t they vote at all.)

My thoughts are many in response to this rationalization. But first and foremost among them is this: if these organizations don’t believe in their own mission, why should we?

Complicating The Domestication Narrative

» June 17th, 2014

A central chapter in the “man was meant to eat meat” narrative insists that animal domestication reflected the natural human quest for flesh. That is to say, that the biological impulse to eat animals was so persuasive that it led humans to isolate chosen members of a wild species, coax them into genetic tractability, and then exploit them for food. On the surface, this claim seems sensible enough—if not beyond question.

But there’s a much more interesting (and historically accurate) way of thinking about the origins of animal domestication. In his excellent book Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, Richard Bulliet argues that animal domestication was almost certainly not a conscious strategy driven by an explicit desire to eat penned or pastured animals. Eating domesticated animals, according to Bulliet, was likely an afterthought, an unintended consequence of a lurching process that happened so gradually, and over so many generations, that humans didn’t even know it was taking place. “It is unimaginable,” he writes, “that the humans who ultimately reaped the benefits of domestication had any clear recollection of how their domestic stock originated.”

This line of investigation is necessarily speculative, but Bulliet keeps it real with thrilling hypotheses and convincing results. Painstakingly, he makes the case that animals might very well have been passively domesticated and maintained in an increasingly tractable state in order to control for trash (pigs), play roles in rituals (cows), provide amulets (bull’s penis as “a sign of power”), serve as status symbols, pull/carry things (horses), protect humans (wolves/dogs), and even provide immediate aesthetic gratification (birds).  Nothing in his analysis prevents us from rightfully thinking that humans may even have wanted animals closer to them because we were curious, intrigued, and even overwhelmed by their beauty. All these motivations likely interacted and overlapped, all the while preceding the decision to domesticate animals for the primary purpose of eating them.

I think this is a truly important possibility to consider. Complicating the conventional domestication hypothesis is critical to countering the essentialist nature of the dominant carnivorous narrative, one that fails to question the primacy and centrality of meat consumption in human history. The whole debate about “were humans meant to eat meat” quite simply bores me. It bores me because it doesn’t matter what we were meant to eat. We eat it—and that is that. But what is relevant is the fact that today we control billions of animals to consume and this behavior seems perfectly normal—if not worthy of celebration—to most people, even people who think about these sort of issues.  But it may not be “normal” in any true sense of the word.

Humans have been around in our current anatomical form for around 200,000 years or so. It is only in the last 6,000 or so that we have started to systematically consume the flesh of domesticated beasts. The fact they we have only been doing so for about 3 percent of human history should be enough to give us pause of the place of this behavior in the human condition. The possibility that we only were at it as secondary or tertiary endeavor should convince us to stop elevating the act of eating animals to the status of sleeping and breathing.


Crawfish Have Anxiety (And That’s No Joking Matter)

» June 14th, 2014

Here’s a nugget of advice for writers covering stories about the largely hidden emotional lives of animals: as you document nonhuman sentience don’t mention how delectable the animals are to eat. That’s bad form. It’s like writing about war and cracking jokes, or covering a house fire and joshing about all those zany! pyromaniacs.

In a way, it’s remarkable that one has to even note such an obvious point of writerly etiquette. But when it comes to journalism and animals, there are no codified rules, no standards that journalists need follow. So, when tasked with writing about a serious discovery bearing on animal cognition, journalists too often resort to inane attempts at cute humor in an effort to make the piece “entertaining.”  This is especially the case when the topic is technical in nature.

But for anyone who knows anything about animal ethics, it’s not entertaining. It’s offensive. A recent article at Smithsonian.com reiterates why. The writer, a freelancer and Smithsonian contributor named Rachel Numer, opened with the news that crawfish—invertebrates—turn out to experience anxiety. That’s cool, and important. The author rightly notes that the conventional wisdom was once that only vertebrates worried. She suggests that the kind of anxiety under discussion is the kind that humans experience. In any other realm, this kind of connection would warrant a tone of gravitas, especially given the seriousness with which the scientists undertook their work (described quite well by Nuwer).

But animals don’t get the gravitas treatment. Nuwer, after reporting the critical kernel of news, somehow feels compelled to pepper her report with fluffy and whimsical asides, as if she were writing for fifth graders. She refers to “those delectable freshwater crustaceans,” which is a ridiculous thing to say about an animal upon whom you’re reporting news about its sophisticated intelligence. (Plus, it’s subjective. When I ate animals I found crawfish disgusting to eat.) Dumbing down the matter to an unprecedented degree, the author next includes a recipe for cooking crawfish, noting that “those [crawfish] that come with a boiling cauldron of Cajun spices, corn and potatoes (mmmm delicious)” will have undergone especially high levels of anxiety. Well, yeah.

Articles in which the writer clearly knows nothing about animal ethics typically include an unintentional contradiction—done by way of evasion—regarding the moral implications of the scientific discovery being described. Numar scores big in this front. She ignores several hundred years of ethical thinking about animals when she blithely assumes that human emotions are “more sophisticated.” She writes, “Crawfish, the team thinks, could serve as excellent study subjects for future anxiety research, as well as for exploring the evolutionary origins of more sophisticated (read: more distressing) forms of anxiety that occur in humans.” More sophisticated? How? What do we mean by sophistication? Has this writer heard the word “speciesist”? Comments such as these are understandable, given the peripheral nature of so much work being on animal ethics and behavior. But they scream for a corrective.

Proof that the author has no idea of her own complicity in fostering attitudes inimical to the findings she writes about, Nuwar concludes, “Unfortunately for the crustaceans, crawfish’s status as invertebrates means that many of the ethical protections their rodent counterparts enjoy are not extended to them.” With articles like this one, it’s not hard to see why.

Update: Please do not post comments personally lambasting the writer mentioned in this post. The Pitchfork is better than that! The point of this piece is to educate, not to insult. Calling the writer names will hardly initiate a change in her perspective. Thank you.  -jm